As of 2015, approximately 676,000 Haitian immigrants call the U.S. home, with large hubs in cities like Miami and Boston. These communities hold their traditions close as they relate to all things life, death, and in between.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Haitian View of Deaths and Rites of Passage
- Haitian Funeral Program and Traditions
- Haitian Funeral Etiquette
- The Cost of Death
- Mourning the Dead
One of the best ways to learn about a culture is to explore its funeral customers. In Haiti, funerals are a necessity, luxury, and business. These unique traditions and customs have existed for hundreds of years, connecting generations throughout history.
If you are planning a Haitian funeral or attending one, this guide will explain what you should do, traditions to follow, and funeral etiquette.
Note: No matter what a family's culture and traditions are, planning or attending a funeral is hard. If you'd like some help and guidance through the process, check out our post-loss checklist.
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Haitian View of Deaths and Rites of Passage
Before looking at an example of a Haitian funeral, let’s take a look at how Haitians view death and give background to their religious preferences. Roman Catholicism—the most popular religion in Haiti—influences death rites. Haitians (even those who practice Catholicism) incorporate elements of the Voodoo religion in their beliefs, too.
Most Haitian don’t view death as an end but as the beginning of 16 lives. Voodoo practitioners believe the deceased will be reborn eight times as a man and eight times as a woman. The religion has its roots in African traditions (check out this guide on Nigerian funerals to learn more). When a Haitian dies, they go ‘underwater’ for 366 days then are reborn.
By contrast, Haitian Roman-Catholics don’t believe in reincarnation. They believe in heaven and hell. After death, the deceased that lived a life full of good deeds go to heaven. Voodoo practitioners believe in heaven or vilokan as it’s called. Haitian funerals focus on helping the deceased pass into the after-life, either heaven or vilokan.
Haitian Funeral Program and Traditions
Many Haitians consider themselves Roman Catholic and Voodoo practitioners. But how can they be both? Both religions believe in one God, also known as Bondye in the Voodoo religion. Both funerals center around the spirit, so there are similarities. Some Haitian Roman Catholics believe God is busy, so they pray to ancestral spirits for immediate help.
Haitian customs task the oldest family member with funeral planning. Before the funeral service, they will hold a vigil. Neighbors and friends will gather to mourn the deceased at this event. Women make coffee to keep mourners awake while they chant and dance around a fire. Haitians believe the celebration will help the deceased return to their ancestors.
First, let’s take a look at a typical Haitian Roman Catholic service. Then you’ll discover Voodoo rituals and traditions you may see at Haitian funerals.
Tip: If you're planning a virtual Haitian funeral using a service like GatheringUs, discuss with your funeral planner or director about how you can adapt these traditions for a live stream.
Roman Catholic funeral order of service
More than half of Haitians are Roman Catholic. If the deceased and their family are Catholic as well, you will see familiar traditions like a wake. There are also some different services and rites you'll want to know before attending. Here's an example of a typical order of service:
After the wake, the family gives their loved one a bath to cleanse them before they enter the after-life. Ritual wailing, expressions of grief through screaming and crying, are common to see.
A funeral procession passes through the village many times to confuse the soul. It’s commonly thought that the soul will haunt the family if they know how to get back home. The procession walks on foot while a hearse drives the casket to the church.
You will see familiar Catholic funeral traditions at the church service. A pastor will lead the congregation in prayer. It’s common for immediate family members to read eulogies—a speech to remember their loved one’s life and accomplishments. At the end of the service, a hearse transports the body to the gravesite.
During the wake and funeral, the family might sing traditional Catholic hymns. Take a look at our complication of the best Catholic funeral hymns for more ideas. You might hear Creole chants d'Espérance (Songs of Hope) too.
Below is an example of a hymn you will hear if the family practices both Catholicism and Voodoo:
“Three Paters, oh three Hail Marys, we believe in
the God who gave us life, but there is Ginen.
In Ginen, oh there are lwa, oh there are lwa,
Oh the family is in Ginen, let’s put our heads
together so we can save the country.”
Guests expect the family to cook. Usually, it’s lighter fare like finger foods and tea. They serve patés or pastries, and té jenjanm, ginger tea. The small meal aids in mourning to provide sympathy and also be easy to digest.
Role of Voodoo rituals and traditions
There’s a saying that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic and 100 percent Voodoo. Just as Catholics pray to saints, Voodoo believers pray to loa or spirits in the afterlife. A Voodoo funeral has different funeral customs altogether. Catholics in Haiti may follow some of Voodoo traditions or none, depending on how heavily they partake in their faith.
Voodoo funeral rites are usually performed in remote Haitian villages. It’s believed that the spirit of the deceased lingers for seven to nine days. There's a nine-day celebration with ethnic dancing, drumming, and animal sacrifices. A priest or priestess performs a ritual to release the soul on the ninth day.
If you’re attending a Voodoo funeral, you can expect to follow up with family a year and a day later. At this time, the Voodoo priest or priestess will perform a Rite of Reclamation ritual to call the soul into a govi or clay jar. Finally, the deceased will be at peace. From the govi, they will offer guidance to their family as a spirit.
Haitian Funeral Etiquette
When a death occurs in a Haitian family, it’s a community affair. Make sure to set a few days of travel aside for the multi-day celebration. It is expected for extended and immediate family members to show up at the funeral. Family members keep the deceased at home until every guest arrives. Expect to gather with the family around plentiful food dishes and whiskey.
If you’re not planning, but attending, there are specific etiquette rules to follow. You’ll want to dress a certain way to conform to their traditions and avoid any unintentional disrespect. Make sure to take a look at the etiquette guide below before attending.
First, don’t wear red
In some cultures, red is a celebratory color reserved for occasions like weddings, but for Haitians, the meaning is different. If you choose to wear red, don’t be surprised to receive shocking looks from family and friends.
Red is the color of an assassin and wearing red means you directly contributed to the deceased’s death. In short, choose a different color instead. Take a look at the guidelines below for more suggestions.
Open dress code
If you’re wondering what to wear you don’t have to worry—Haitian funeral attire is open-ended. Dark colors like purple and even patterns are common-place. It’s best to cover your shoulders and wear a long skirt or pants to show respect.
Usually, immediate family members wear black. Some guests, especially children, even wear white. As mentioned above, the main rule of thumb is to avoid red attire. Check-in with the family before attending to see if they’ve made a special arrangement for the dress code.
The Haitian people have a saying C’est le geste qui prime or it’s the gesture that counts. If you’re wondering what to give, consider your budget and relationship to the family. If you’re an immediate family member, dues to help with funeral costs are always welcome.
Traditional white flowers are welcome at Catholic ceremonies. You can also send a wreath to decorate the casket or hearse ahead of time. Make sure to attach a thoughtful note to your flowers—as mentioned above, small gestures make a big difference at Haitian funerals.
The Cost of Death
As life expectancy in Haiti decreases, funeral costs increase. The cost of both Roman Catholic and Voodoo funerals places a burden on families that live on less than 2 dollars a day. Some families sell their possessions to cover the cost.
Organ donations and cremations are rare in Haiti since the body should be intact for the afterlife. The preferred method is a burial for the deceased, but burial space continues to shrink in Haiti as costs of cemetery plots rise. It’s not uncommon to see bones and skulls scattered across cemetery sites when familiar can’t afford the rental costs.
Thankfully, for Haitians, the first year is the most important for the soul. If they can’t afford the cemetery costs after that year, they hold hope that their loved one’s soul has already passed into the afterlife.
Mourning the Dead
No matter how difficult it is to secure a burial plot, grieving families pool their resources to give their loved one the best burial they can within their means. They give thanks to their ancestors and hold festivals throughout the year.
Haitian observe Ancestry Day on January 2nd. They dance in the streets and eat big feasts to celebrate their ancestors.
Death, God, and Voodoo: Final Thoughts
Now that you’re familiar with Haiti’s colorful customs and rituals, it’s clear to see how they make Roman Catholicism and Voodoo mesh together well. The veneration of spirits is deeply embedded in the Haitian culture during life and in death.
Have you thought about what traditions will be present at your funeral? Your decisions are important, and Cake can help you honor them with a Cake end-of-life planning profile. You can plan your memorial, manage your estate, and share your funeral preferences with family and friends.
- MacFarland, Amanda. “Death in Haiti.” The Crudem Foundation, www.crudem.org/death-haiti
- McFadden David. “Grieving Haitians go into lifetime of debt to fund funerals.” Associated Press, April 05, 2017, www.apnews.com/2a6080b8b41449d9b7fe1177525ae85c
- Ulysse, Gina. “Haitian Mourning Rituals and Just Don’t Wear Red!” Tikkun Daily, June 16, 2017, www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2017/06/16/haitian-mourning-rituals-and-just-dont-we ar-red
- Hagerty, Barbara. “Voodoo Brings Solace To Grieving Haitians.” January 20, 2010, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122770590
- “The World of Vodou Songs.” Temple University, www.upress.temple.edu/uploads/book/excerpt/2138_ch1.pdf
- “The Worldbank in Haiti.” The Worldbank, www.worldbank.org/en/country/haiti/overview
- "Vodou is elusive and endangered." The Guardian. 7 November 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/07/vodou-haiti-endangered-faith-soul-of-haitian-people